Even from the top of the palo verde tree, the situation looked bad. Serenity Walker gave a huff, drumming her fingers on the rough bark of the trunk, staring out over the hazy, ugly landscape. A sandstorm whirled over the distant dunes, barring the way east.
She rubbed at her temple, wishing away her nascent headache. From down on the ground, she'd hoped the storm might not be so big. A quick dust-up, something that would blow itself out quickly so she could continue her journey. No such luck. The view from higher up revealed a thick wall of whirling grit and sand big enough to last through the night, and maybe into the next day.
"One more day for the bounty to build his lead," she muttered, and began her climb back down. "Looks like this is where we're making camp."
The sun hadn't set yet, but in the Geiralian Desert night came on fast, and it usually turned biting cold no matter how warm the day had been. Of course, if the storm came her way, she could be in for winds hot enough to leave blisters and burns. She'd have to raise a shelter to screen against the gales.
"Bastard," she muttered, hopping the last two feet from the tree trunk to the hard-packed earth.
Dry gusts blew alternately warm and cool while she worked. Her horse whickered and tugged at its ropes, and stomped one hoof at her when she neared. She loved horses, and got along better with them than she did most other animals. This dappled gray gent, however, had a troublesome attitude.
She propped up the canvas of her tent to make a windscreen and reinforced it with a couple quick measures. The sun had set by the time she had everything secured, and she threw one last glance at the distant darkness before sitting down to the quiet snap and pop of her fire.
The flames burned high. While she'd had her back turned, they'd grown much higher and brighter than those of any normal blaze. Their wild glow warmed her skin, their brilliant dance alive with yellow sparks. Serenity closed her eyes and drew in a long, slow breath. Though the desert around her stretched bone-white and practically barren under a sky full of shifting starlight and clouds, the smell of jungle lingered in the air like a primordial spirit.
Her horse nickered from the edge of the camp and shuffled farther away from the feral light.
A visitor had appeared across from her. Between the crackles of flame, his face remained hidden. No surprise there. Darklings rarely showed their faces.
Are you sure it will hold, fleshling?
His voice echoed in her head. Voiceless and timeless, it rumbled up from within her in a resonating whisper like a feline purr. D'aej, come out from his den in the back of her mind, to speak with her in person.
Or rather, as close to "in person" as a bound darkling like D'aej could manage. Really, it was only visual trick of the senses, a ghostly projection. He might not really be there—he, like the flames, only an illusion—but if Serenity reached out to touch him, she would still feel the icy velvet of his black, featureless skin, the smooth, mellow shape of his noseless, mouthless muzzle. To her mind, he could be as solid, and as dangerous, as any feral beast.
She nodded in answer to his question. "It'll hold. Storm looks like it's breaking south, anyway."
D'aej, like living shadow, ducked and danced behind the flames, but his eyes—yellow, wily, cat-like—remained steady on her.
Old wives' tales said darklings in the camp were an ill omen. Plants would wither, dogs would go mad, and milk would turn sour. But Serenity trafficked with enough of them to expect the occasional visit and never think twice. She lived in a world of ill omens.
D'aej, for that matter, wasn't just any darkling. He was a part of her, close as a Gemini twin.
We've gone too long since resting these bones in a bed, Serenity.
She stood and stretched, relishing the false heat of his trick fire. The flames hid him from her, giving her a glance of him here, a glance of him there, but never revealing all of him as he flickered in and out of sight.
"Why are you complaining?" She crossed to where the horse stood and dug in the saddlebags until she found her deck of cards. "It's not as though it makes any difference to you."
Grim annoyance slithered across their psychic link. This body is as much mine as yours, and I grow weary of its aching joints.
"We'll reach the next town soon enough," she said as she began to shuffle. "But we won't be staying long. Not when he's getting farther ahead."
D'aej didn't reply, but she sensed familiar seething distaste. After traveling the desert for almost nine days, with nothing but sand on the horizon and no one but each other for company, her darkling lamented far more than a lack of creature comforts. But sometimes the hunt took turns like these, and the demon with whom she shared her body should have learned to accept it by now.
Serenity sat cross-legged on her bedroll, unfurled beneath the spreading canvas, and dealt out the first hand of cards. Sigils and illustration, figures from folklore and ancient myth and adventure, cavorted under her fingertips, and she read from them a familiar game of cat-and-mouse. The same game she'd been playing for years; the same long road she'd walked ever since the night a worthless, stupid rat of a man stole everything away from her.
"We'll get to town soon enough," she repeated. "Until then, you just keep your nose to the wind and keep us on the trail."
This storm complicates matters, Serenity. Our prey is moving faster than I expected.
"All the more reason for us to be quick."
Time didn't matter. Serenity understood lonely trails and endless, stalking patience. She and D'aej had walked across nearly the whole western half of the Geiral continent, from lowland mining and farming towns up the spine of the mountain ranges, and even into the creeping shadow of the demon country called the Rachalör. They'd visited more taverns and brothels and gambling houses than they could name, and walked away from more cold trails and dead ends than other bounty hunters could tolerate. They'd brought in more marks than those hunters, too. She didn't like the delay, but a few more weeks—a bit more desert—would make no difference in the end.
"It's nothing new." She considered the spread of her cards again, then swept them up to reshuffle.
"He won't shake us. You'd never let him shake us."
Grim silence—D'aej's sour way of conceding—was the only reply.
Hours passed. Serenity slept. In her dreams, she traveled back home.
Home to the Wolf's Den.
It was the only tavern in Eclipse, a northern town sprung up in a thick pine forest of the mountain ranges. The town of Serenity's youth, populated by loggers, trappers, and even a few hardy farmers. The Den stayed quiet most of the day, but it livened up near sunset, when the dinner bells rang and the folk came in from their work. Then the bar, with its tables scattered about for card players and work crews, and its offering of spiced northern liquors and good cooking, came alive.
Man went out into the street, high noon...
An enormous stone fireplace took up most of the wall opposite the entrance. One of Magda's girls kept the flames going all through the evening, longer as nights got steeper and colder. A set of stairs led up to the six small rooms above, where travelers could have their rest for the night, given the right coin. The rooms on the ground floor belonged to the Den's proprietress, Magda, and the young ladies who found their way to her, needing work and a place to stay.
He knew that the Reaper would be coming for him soon.
The Den always smelled of warm, roasting venison and Magda's best beer, of the sweat of hard wilderness men and their industrious women, the elusive perfume of the serving girls winding like ribbons among them. Magda herself, tall and wiry, kept a shrewd watch from her place at the bar.
But all of that started when the customers came. In the now-time of Serenity's dream, the Den stood quiet, almost empty, looking forward to a later rush when it would be full to bursting, hardly a chair left empty.
Serenity sat at a table near the back of the room, a child of twelve, her serving towel across her lap and a small brown journal on the table before her. The pages were filled with scribbled symbols and jumbled notes, line after line of them, written in a child's uneven scrawl. As Serenity dealt out hand after hand of cards, carefully pondering the results, she added more to them and nibbled at her lip. The gamblers who came to the Den dealt poker; Serenity cast the runes. The ancient language, discourse of Geiral's secretive arcane class, philosophers of the spiritual realms and mysteries of the otherworld. Diligent and tireless, Serenity dealt, studied, jotted down a note in her journal, shuffled, studied, dealt again. She'd finished her work for the afternoon, and Magda wouldn't need her until six, when they served dinner. This gave her hours to indulge in her lessons. She cast again, studied, scribbled, shuffled, cast.
A warm hand came down on her shoulder.
"The darklings won't play today," she grumbled.
Jack offered her a gratifying chuckle. "Then it's good you're only throwing practice."
Jack Chamberlain. Eclipse's homegrown lawman. Tall and tawny, a constant patron of the Den, he made the older girls swoon and prompted even the rowdiest guests to keep on their best behavior. And he'd taught Serenity all she knew about the runes.
Man went out into the street, high noon...
He picked up her notes and read them over, hming and mm-hming as he did. "Definitely good. The last thing you need is a real darkling throwing back at you with this sort of luck."
Serenity wrinkled her nose and swept the cards back into the deck. Two dozen gold-bordered fields of black shivered in her hands as she shuffled and cast again, muttering at the result.
"Tiewaz...rune of the champion. Spirituality. Discipline."
"Are you sure you drew that one for yourself?" Jack teased.
"Look at the next one."
He picked up the card. "Gebo. A great gift, a gift from the gods."
"But I drew it upside down. Merkstave position."
He chuckled again. "Like I said. Only practice."
Shot six times like a dog in the street...
Six times, doctor, dig 'em six feet.
Twelve-year-old Serenity rapped her knuckles on the wood, chewing her lip, before sweeping up the cards and reshuffling them.
"You didn't read the last ones," Jack said.
"Sure I did. Inauspicious timing, decisions made, withdrawal and isolation..."
"Are you sure?"
She glanced up at him. "They fell mostly upside down."
He returned her notes and ruffled her ash-blonde hair. "Well, keep trying, kiddo."
Shot six times like a dog in the street...
He left her then, crossing the room to the bar where Magda would pour him a frothy mug of warm ale. A weaver's trick would frost it for him the way he preferred, the rune isa cast on the glass to turn it crisp and cold. One of the simplest of spells.
Serenity gave her attention back to her cards. She shuffled. Split the deck. Shuffled again. Split again. Finally she drew a single card, pausing before flipping it over.
Man went out into the street, high noon...
The world slowed around her, growing thick and malevolently certain. With eerie omniscience, the kind possessed only in dreams, Serenity looked up from her studies. She followed Jack with her eyes, taking him in with solemn calculation. A casual cowboy with holes in his jeans and a crooked, boyish smile on his face. Strong arm. Gentle voice. A charmer. A white hat.
Slowly, so slowly, he raised the glass of beer Magda handed him, tipping his head in an eternal nod, half turning to come back to the little girl—the prodigy—who waited for him.
As though someone else had taken her hand, Serenity flipped the card she'd drawn. Even as she did, she knew it would be the end of him. It always was. The dull, distant sound of thunder echoed in the back of her mind, almost visible to her as it rippled outward from her table and across the room with hateful promise. Low, husky laughter followed in its wake, a dark spirit sneaking through the shadows all around her.
Six times, doctor, down in the street...
Her lips formed the silent, terrible children's rhyme, words dancing in rhythm like a funeral march. And as she watched, hypnotized, a wet, red bloom flowered across the front of Jack's dusty chambray shirt.
He stumbled, falling forward, ever forward, his glass flying from his hand and spilling through the air. Still she turned the card, as Jack threw out his arms. He became a ghost, a faded picture, falling and falling, and the Wolf's Den fell with him, sifting away like sand, everything slipping away into darkness.
The sound of the card coming down on the table made a solitary tick in the remaining emptiness. Then, for long, long moments, nothing. Silence deeper than silence.
I tried, Jack, a tiny voice—a child's voice—said in the back of her mind.
The shadows rippled. Someone, somewhere, started laughing. Serenity wasn't alone in this secret darkness. She sensed the desperado's grin, a glimmer of wicked love, a poisonous delight.
"Thurisaz," she said out loud. Her voice doubled. It became the voice of a twelve-year-old novice paired with the voice of a grown woman lost in the desert, filling up a gap of untold years. The snickers of a thousand demons scuttled through the shadows, the chorus of the darklings, the otherworlders, gleefully snickering and echoing through her mind.
"Thurisaz. The giant," she recited. "Thurisaz, for pain. Thurisaz for violence. Thunder. War. Rage."
And somewhere within her, deep within her, came the smug, purring sound of living darkness, prowling satisfied through her body.
Yes, it hissed. My thurisaz. My hammer and thorn.
My sweet, sweet Serenity.
The storm broke south, as she'd expected. The next day, under a white, hot, and cloudless sky, Serenity and her demon moved on, scanning the horizon ahead for a first glimpse of town. Placid, silent, swept clean by the night's busy winds, Geiral's humongous sand pit stretched out miles in every direction. Across it all, she and her own horse were the only living beings to be seen.
A person could go mad in these wastes. They could wander, lost, starving, and die, and their bones might lie undiscovered beneath the flat glower of the sun until civilization itself turned to stone.
And it would turn out they'd been less than half a mile away from salvation, somehow. Serenity wiped sweat from her brow. A trade outpost or an oasis, just over the next rise. And nobody would ever know.
Sometime in the mid-afternoon, when the bright hours started maturing toward the deep reds and rich ochres of sunset, Serenity and D'aej found the remains of their quarry's camp. Most of it had been meticulously tidied and cleaned away, but the prey had left something behind for her. A scrap of paper, pinned under a stone, fluttered in the hot breeze.
Serenity dismounted and crossed to the stone, picking up the note.
Shame about that storm, wasn't it? Guess I live to fight another day. If you want to give up, remember, there's no shame in turning back.
Walk away, Serenity. Just walk away.
"Like hell," she snarled, and dropped the note back onto the stone. Cocking her finger at it like a gun, she snapped a runic hex off her fingers, and a blast of fire turned the message to ash.